ExpulsionsEvery new book by Saskia Sassen is always a small event for me, since she is one of my favorite contemporary sociologist. This one is no exception. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy is a bit shorter than Sassen’s usual length but it has the usual “big picture” and dense writing that are characteristic of her style. Sassen is both an empirical and theoretical sociologist, so, every book of hers, marshalls a deep conceptual apparatus to explain disparate occurrences (or thick realities, as she calls them in this book). She sees these distinct and not-entirely similar trends are subterranean expressions of larger assemblages driven by a dual logic of inclusion / expulsion within the global context. However, this is ground-level work.

That’s a mouthful but that is the general idea and throughout the book, Sassen uses a variety of datasets and case studies to make her points, exploring in greater details four visual expressions of this inclusion / expulsion logic:

  1. shrinking of the economic spaces,
  2. the new rush for African land,
  3. financialization of everything,
  4. environmental destruction.

In all these four domains, we found the same logic of inclusion (something brought onto the global capitalist system) / expulsion (the exclusion and marginalization of the “losers” of the inclusion logic). Since the point of the book is to make the logic of expulsions visible, the focus is on extreme cases. However, because expulsion is the flip side of inclusion, it can occur in a context of economic growth, and therefore, remain deceptively out of sight. In addition, the inclusion / expulsion duality is often overlaid with a complexity / elementarity (yes, that’s a word, I checked) duality where complex mechanisms (such as financial instruments concocted by high-level mathematicians, and comprehensible by only a few) led to the elementary logic of expulsion (mass foreclosures).

The resulting expulsions Sassen define as elementary brutalities produced by complexity. Such complexity comes in various forms (again, financial instruments, structural adjustment programs, “free trade” contracts that lead to land dispossession, complex resource extraction technologies), through various institutions and organizational forms, but they lead to expulsions all the same, and acute ones at that.

But no matter what specific form such expulsions take, they all are part of a mechanism of what Sassen calls ‘savage sorting‘: the sorting of who will matter and be counted in economic indicators, and who will not and be sentence to live at what Sassen calls the systemic edge.

First, Sassen identifies the latest shift in capitalist accumulation with the 1980s. This is a familiar story: the end of the post-War period with its focus on redistribution, inclusion, social protections, etc. Reaganomics-type of economic policy in Western countries, the “lost decade” in the Global South led to an inversion of inequality dynamics with increasing concentration of income and wealth at the top and stagnation for the rest of social classes. Such a reversion of the “Trente Glorieuses” was not a conspiracy of the elites but also a systemic product of institutional, organizational, and technological processes. Not only that but this concentration could, for the first real time, be scaled up to a truly global level. This complex mix, Sassen calls a predatory formation.

But then, what Sassen is really interested in is not the nth statistical description of increased inequality and/or poverty. What she points to is something akin to a statistical ethnic cleansing where the expelled from shrunk (yet growing) economies are simply no longer visible (hence the picture of growth). The economic space is shrunk by pushing out the marginalized, those who no longer receive unemployment benefits, those who leave, those who are incarcerated, those who have committed suicide. Most of these things have happened or are happening in one way or the other, Sassen often uses the extreme example of Greece after the 2007 economic collapse: Greece underwent several waves of austerity imposed by the EU and its economy was pronounced as recovering because the measures and indices that are supposed to show such recovery actually ignore the social collapse.

So, on the one hand, there is the measured corporatized economy, now existing as a shrunk space, after divestment from social-contract, social-welfare-related expenses. It is not hard to see this is exactly what has happened to the countries subjected to austerity programs imposed from the EU:

“It leads one to wonder if this brutal restructuring was undertaken precisely in order to achieve a smaller but workable economic space that would show growth in GDP according to traditional metrics — even if it necessitates the expulsion from the economy, and its measures, of significant shares of the workforce and the small business sector. After all, a mere hint of GDP growth can be a positive signal to investors and financial markets, and this is a key achievement from the perspective of current IMF and European Central Bank policy — and not only in the EU. The alternative survival economies that are emerging exist in a different economic space, one that falls outside formal measures and indicators. For now they are not enough to meet the needs of the expelled and of the merely impoverished.” (43)

To put it simply, the logic of displacement looks like this:

Displacement (1)

This combination of shrinking of economic space / expulsion has occurred irrespective of the political / economic systems in place. For instance, if one look at incarceration in the United States, one can see a mix of privatization and deregulation (that is, the opening up of a market / corporate space), along with systemic racism and massive expulsion. But all of elements in the image above are the product of predatory formations that are themselves a mix of different institutional, organization, and technological mechanisms. On the face of it, they may look very different from each other and unrelated, but once reconceptualized as part of such logic of inclusion / expulsion, they bear some very Wittgensteinian family resemblances.

Sassen also demonstrates that the same logic of inclusion / expulsion is at work in the current land grab made necessary by (1) the rise in demand for industrial crops, such as biofuels, and food crops, and (2) growing interest from global investors (hence the rise in food prices). On the ground, this means the expulsion of small farmers, who then join the legions of urban poor, themselves expelled from the economic growth of the global cities, creating what Mike Davis had nicknamed Planet of Slums.

At the same time, this mass acquisition of land in the Global South was made possible because the IMF and the World Bank have used debt reduction as part of a disciplining regime, that was, again, supposed to integration countries of the Global South into the global economy, but resulted in elementary expulsions, as governments from these countries had to agree to conditions akin to austerity programs (the infamous structural adjustment programs). Sassen describes at length the mechanisms of land acquisition in the context of the discipline-through debt reduction.

A similar logic is at work in the financialization of everything that was so central to the crisis of 2008:

“The financialization of a growing number of economic sectors since the 1980s has become both a sign of power of this financial logic and the sign that it is exhausting its growth potential in the current phase, insofar as finance needs to use and invade other economic sectors in order to grow. Once it has subjected much of the economy to its logic, it reaches some type of limit, and the downward curve is likely to set in. One acute illustration of this is the development of instruments by some financial firms that allow them simultaneously to bet on growth in a sector and bet against that sector.” (137)

This is also a well known story and it is not hard to see the expulsions it created. The best documentary on that subject is Inside Job which does a good job of showing the globally-interrelated dynamics that created the pre-crisis situation: Wall Street, US academia, global investors, pension funds (local, national, and global), etc.

Finally, Sassen turns to her last form of expulsion: expulsion from the biosphere. The anthropocene era means that humans are having an irreversible effect on the biosphere’s ability to regenerate. This leads to the creation of dead landscapes through a variety of human practices that affect wildlife and fauna (we recently learned that extinctions are at an increasing pace) and flora. Sassen goes through a multiplicity of local instances and examples which can be mapped out below:

Expulsions from the biopshere (1)The fact that these instances of environmental degradation (that involves our now-familiar dynamic of inclusion / expulsions) can be found in a variety of political economies show that no system has a monopoly over bad environmental management.

Having gone through an enormous amount of data and a multiplicity of cases, Sassen pulls it all together in her concluding chapter where she explores more thoroughly the idea of systemic edge, whose key dynamic is incorporation (inclusion) / expulsion. The way I see it, Sassen uses incorporation / inclusion in two senses: (1) to describe the post-War period where redistribution mechanisms led to the incorporation of more actors within the system (minorities, women, etc.) and (2) as bringing something within the realm of the capitalist world-system (areas or sectors that were previous not included but now could, thanks to technology, institutions of global governance, etc.

But from her own examples, it is that second meaning that seems the most relevant at this point: inclusion comes at a price: expulsions in all the forms Sassen describes, be they social, economic, or ecological.This reads as very pessimistic as the book ends with the defining of the systemic edge as a space of expulsions, where the expelled are relegated. I guess her next book should be about that space since she spent this one describing the shrinking space at the system’s center.

Indeed, this is a very rich book that feel a bit unfinished. I do hope she gets to write Part II – Life at the Systemic Edge or some such title.

This is not an easy book but it is worth anyone’s while. What is important, I think, is how Sassen takes “stories” that most of us are now familiar with (the end of the Trente Glorieuses), the neoliberal turn, increase inequalities (a fertile topic before Picketty-mania stroke!), slum-ification of the global cities, environmental degradation, and then reconceptualizes them as part of a set of predatory formations. The strength of the book is, I think, in its deployment of Sassen’s conceptual apparatus. So, I wish this book got more play but not, it’s all Picketty all the time, and I’m concerned that this will eclipse a work that should receive greater publicity.

In any event, here is Sassen speaking about expulsions at the LSE:

Göran Therborn published The Killing Fields of Inequality as what looks like an expanded version of a 2009 article on the same subject. And contrary to Picketty’s massive economic volume, Therborn’s book is short and sweet even though it covers some of the same territory. However, Therborn’s book focuses more on theoretical conceptualizations of inequality as well as its social consequences.

This is visible right off the bat in the way Therborn defines inequality:

“Inequality is a violation of human dignity; it is a denial of the possibility for everybody’s human capabilities to develop. It takes many forms, and it has many effects: premature death, ill-health, humiliation, subjection, discrimination, exclusion from knowledge or from mainstream social life, poverty, powerlessness, stress, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-confidence and of pride in oneself, and exclusion from opportunities and life-chances. Inequality, then, is not just about the size of wallets. It is a socio-cultural order, which (for most of us) reduces our capabilities to function as human beings, our health, our self-respect, our sense of self, as well as our resources to act and participate in this world.” (1)

This is, I think, one of the most powerful statement of what equality truly is, beyond the relatively simplistic (and always contentious, nevertheless) economic indicators that do not capture the multi-layered nature of the impact, and mixing of cause and consequence, of inequality. But it is precisely this multi-layered nature that necessitates a more nuanced and inclusive approach to examining inequality, which is what Therborn focuses on:

  1. a multi-dimensional conceptualization of inequality;
  2. within a historical and global context;
  3. produced through a variety of mechanisms;
  4. and often countered by equalization mechanisms (which Therborn argues for).

The simple idea is that inequality is produced by a variety of mechanisms and is therefore not inevitable (like some weird atmospheric event) and certainly not desirable considering the social devastation it produces (which reproduces it at the same time). As such, equalization mechanisms are needed and available.

So, first of all, inequality means exclusion which comes in two forms:

Two main doors of social exclusion

Out of these, Therborn notes three different effects (click on the image for larger view):

The mechanisms through whichinequality tears society apart

To summarize:

“The social space for human development is carved up and restricted, above all for the disadvantaged, of course, but not only for them. Secondly, the inequality of ownership of, control of or access to economic resources means that what has been produced in a given society can easily be dissipated by the privileged few. Thirdly, inequality of economic resources and their political deployment has negated the nineteenth-century liberal fears of democracy: that citizens’ power would encroach upon private property. Instead, big property owners have, most of the time in most countries, been able to dictate what is ‘sound economic policy’.” (22)

The greater the inequality, the more of all three effects we will observe.

No conceptual work would be complete with some distinction and clarification although I do not find his conceptualization of the difference between difference and inequality persuasive:

Difference Inequality
Assumed or given Socially constructed
No commonality assumed Assumed commonality
No violation of norm of equality Violation of norm of equality
Difference can coexist with inequality

I have to say that I am not really convinced by this. Differences can be as socially constructed as inequalities and these inequalities can be constructing through othering, that is, by denying any commonality with the class of people being stuck at the bottom of the social ladder. Similarly, inequality is often based on some imposed norm of essential inequality (gender, for instance) whether that supposed essence is assumed to be religion, tradition, or nature.

How much equality do we need? Here, Therborn invokes Amartya Sen’s capability approach to punt: inequalities prevent billions of people from full human development. Therefore, the focus should be on increasing capability for all and reducing social bads.

The bulk of Therborn’s conceptual work goes to delineating the different types of inequalities (click on the image for a larger view):

Three kinds of inequalityAccording to Therborn, while the mechanisms of vital and resource inequalities have been amply studied, the social sciences have yet to give existential inequality the attention it deserves. On the one hand, I disagree: Therborn refers to sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. and those have been extensively studied. On the other hand, yes, there have been discussions within the social sciences regarding identity politics as existential inequality, so conceived, goes back to issues of privileges and disadvantages.

Resource inequality refers not just to economic matters but also education, all forms of cultural inequality, inequalities in symbolic and social capital, as well as inequalities of power.

Needless to say, the distinction is conceptual. There is no question that these different forms of inequalities overlap and influence each other, and have impacts on one another.

How are inequalities produced and maintained?

“Inequalities are produced and sustained socially by systemic arrangements and processes, and by distributive action, individual as well as collective. It is crucial to pay systematic attention to both. ‘Distributive action’ is here taken as any social action, individual as well as collective, with direct distributive consequences, be they actions of systemic advance or retardation, or of allocation / distribution.” (55)

Therborn identifies four such distributive actions, each involving both individual actions (what Therborn call ‘direct agency’) and systemic dynamics (click on the image for a larger view):

--Types of distributive action--I numbered these actions because Therborn see them as a cumulative continuum, with distanciation at one polar end, and exploitation at the other polar end of the continuum. Each layer adds more inequalities to the system, with exploitation (which includes slavery as extreme form) as the most unequal.

However, each one of these distributive actions can be countered by an equalizing mechanism:

--Types of equality mechanisms--

I numbered them to refer them to their respective distributive action (and like the distributive actions, these mechanisms can be individual or collective).

So, this is the basic conceptual apparatus that Therborn deploys to then get to the historical and empirical aspects of inequality, that is, match the concepts to the data. Note that the apparatus is more descriptive than predictive.

I have to say that this is where the book gets a bit tedious mostly because of the too-limited use of some data vizualization. It is really useless to read paragraphs and paragraphs of data. I wish these empirical sections had been better visualized. I think Therborn is going to lose a lot of non-specialist readers on that aspect alone even though it is a book that should get a wider audience than academic types.

That being said, Therborn reviews the data based on his inequality three-part apparatus. Regarding vital inequalities:

“For recent increases in vital inequality, there are two main suspects. One is increasing economic uncertainty and polarization, between the unemployed and the labour market marginalized, on the one hand, and the surfers on the boom waves, on the other. The other is nowadays often called ‘lifestyle’, but is better termed ‘life-options’. It is not so much a choice of style as a perspective of possible options. People who have little control of their basic life situation, of finding a job, of controlling their work context, of launching a life-course career, may be expected to be less prone to control the health of their bodies – to notice and to follow expert advice on tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, on diet and exercise – than people who have a sense of controlling their own lives.” (82-3)

Regarding existential inequalities:

“Even though blatant, institutionalized existential inequality, such as racism, sexism and ruthless developmentalism or ‘civilizing’ zeal, have been eroded, existential inequality is still permeating contemporary societies.

(…)

There are also current social tendencies driving new forms of existential inequality: de-industrialization outsourcing, immigration of the poor, and labour market marginalizations. Such tendencies are now directed against an ‘underclass’ of people marginalized or excluded from the labour market, the second generation of industrial immigrants, poor single mothers, the children of de-industrialized workers. In Britain, they have been given a new pejorative identity as the ‘chavs’ (Jones 2011). In a US conservative bestseller portrait, they are a new ‘lower class’, unmarried, lazy, dishonest and godless (Murray 2012). Class is here returning as an existential put-down.” (88-9)

[Note: I totally resent that Therborn cites Murray repeatedly, just positing him as a conservative rather than an awful racist who should have been banned for academic status ever since the publication of the giant pile of horse manure that is The Bell Curve.]

And as for resource inequalities, the story is well-known: deindustrialization, rise of financial capitalism, globalization and the rise of transnational forces able to undermine the social safety nets. On education, Therborn, I think Therborn engages in too much generalizing (for instance, that private systems are better at the primary and secondary levels). One cannot, on the one hand, deplore the persistence of educational gaps and not see the impact of private systems on such persistence.

As for power,

“Within nations, social movements, collective associations and wide-franchised elections – democratization, in short – have brought about a major equalization of political resources, once monopolized by monarchs and other despots. But, as with economic resources, political equalization has been stopped or reversed recently, by de-unionization, political party erosion, and general social dissolution of the popular classes. A difference from what has happened to economic resources, which are ever more concentrated, has been the rise of electronic social media and their possibilities of self-generated mass communication.” (99)

I think the jury is still out on that one. There may be a crisis of legitimation, but yesterday’s European Parliamentary elections show that the reaction is not one of demand for more democracy. Quite the opposite.

Therborn shows that progress on vital inequalities is still inadequate, even in some developed countries. At the same time, again, in developed countries, there has been considerable progress on existential inequality (gay rights, for instance), but I would argue that this has been at the expenses of resource inequalities. In other words, the power elite has figured out that they could keep on beating up on unions and the poor, as long as there was some (cost-free) progress on identity politics matters, there would be no class-based social movements to demand changes.

So where does this leave us:

“Violent revolutions, large-scale industrial wars, profound economic crisis – strong storms have been necessary to tame the ferocious anti-egalitarianism of late-feudal, patriarchal and modern capitalist societies. However, there has also been a fourth kind of egalitarian moment. Under certain circumstances, far-reaching peaceful social reform has been possible. This is obviously the experience most relevant to the current world.” (155)

And by fourth moment, Therborn mean “les trente glorieuses” (the post-WWII period until the 1980s) and the current political movement in Latin America.

When it comes to reducing inequalities, Therborn argues that this will require forces of equalization and that these can be divided in two: forces of demand (for equality) and forces of supply (those social actors who can actually deliver equalization) based on their motivations.

So, regarding these forces of demand, exit the labor movement and the working class, enter identify-based movements and what Therborn solidaristic individualism:

“Solidaristic individualism – ‘I want to choose my own lifestyle, but I am concerned about the possibilities of others to make their choice’ – is a vital force of equality. It provided the vibrant, albeit unsustainable, dynamic of the Occupy movements (see, further, Castells 2012; Mason 2012).” (162)

I think he is absolutely right on that.

What of the forces of supply, then?

“Equality derives basically from demand. But as social equality is a social force of cohesion, of combat as well as of development, it has its forces of supply, driven first of all by fear. There is the fear of the unequals, of their anger and their possible protests and rebellion. Secondly, there is the fear of the external enemy, the fear of not being up to the lethal capacity of the latter. Thirdly, there is the fear of backwardness, and projects of inclusive national development. While fear is a basic source of equalization measures by the powerful and privileged, it is not the only one. Ruling elites and/or their staff are not always fully absorbed by their own privileges and greed. They are not necessarily incapable of comprehensive visions and far-sighted strategic calculations – occasionally even of empathy with their subjects.” (163)

Again, here, I would argue that the elites have been able to continue the pursuit of resource inequalities by trading it for existential equalization.

For the future, Therborn sees three potential battlefields (and they are all institutional and systemic: family, capitalism, and nation as all three are essential in producing inequalities. There has been a lot of progress on the family front, not just with the redefinition of family in and of itself (and the progressive acceptance of multiple family forms) but also with respect to children’s rights. Ultimately, that battlefield is about individual rights to form families of one’s choice. When it comes to capitalism, though, Therborn goes back rights tied to labor and against precarization. Finally, the national battlefield goes to rights of citizens:

“Asserting the rights of citizens means, first of all, a vigorous defence of democracy, of people’s right to self-determination. Citizens have a right to assert their collective will regarding their economy and their environment over any private capital interests, or any anonymous global aggregation of, e.g., financial markets. The ongoing 2008 crisis, caused by an absence of any civic control over the opulent little world of reckless speculators and high-stake casino-gamblers, acted out more in Europe than in America, is the costliest defeat of the North Atlantic democracies since the German crash of 1931–3.” (173)

Therborn argues that these battlefields might not be primarily in developed countries but outside of the Global North. But he also thinks that certain factors will lead to fighting for equalization:

  1. the obvious cost of misery that is visible to all;
  2. the crisis of legitimation for the elite after they destroyed the economy;
  3. equality is good for society.

I am not so sure about #1, the rise of the Tea Party, and fascist parties all over Europe are precisely movements that are based on a complete lack of compassion for underdogs and victims of all forms of inequalities. They are based on resentment and hatred. That’s an extra obstacle that Therborn does not consider.

Yes, the elites have been somewhat discredited but the challenges have been limited: a threat of protest at commencement speech, the short-lived Occupy movement and Arab Spring movements. None of the contestation has led to any systemic change.

Yes, equality is good for society and there is ample data to prove it, but the dominant discourse is not that idea at all, and especially considering, again, my response to #1.

So, this is a book very much worth reading and important. I don’t agree with all of it. The conceptual apparatus is worth exploring and using. The diagnosis is sound, but the prescriptions, I think, are a bit too optimistic.

Nevertheless, I think this is required reading for all sociologists.

And while you’re at it, also go read Kathleen Geier’s review.

Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of The Wealth Gap is not technically a sociology book, but it is an important piece of reporting on a topic that, I think, is central to the discipline as a whole. After all, sociologist have been harping about increasing inequality and its consequences long before it was cool (that is, long before Occupy, and Picketty-mania).

Overall, the book is organized along a “compare and contrast” format, alternating chapters of the way “the system”, and especially the social structures of social control deal with the powerful and wealthy v. the powerless and poor or near-poor.

For people who follow the news, none of what is in the book will be entirely surprising, but the contrasting structure of gentle handling of the powerful by their regulatory agencies compared to the kafkaesque nightmares of stop-and-frisk, and border policies, and welfare present a powerful picture of grotesque inequalities at the individual level.

And quite frankly, even cynical me was horrified at the ways these structures used by, or imposed upon, the poor and powerless actually work (or don’t work). In effect, these chapters are a perfect reflection of what Frances Fox Pivens depicted decades ago regarding the welfare system: a system designed to NOT provide its prescribed services, and that would crumble if it had to (exposing the real levels of social precarity). In addition, what all three systems have in common, whether it’s stop-and-frisk, the border / private prison system, or the welfare system is that they are designed to discipline the poor and minorities, more than anything else (paging Foucault).

Of course, it is neither innocent nor coincidental that each of these systems deal with minorities: African Americans, undocumented migrants, and single mothers. By contrast, the chapters on the powerful deal with massive scale mismanagement and fraud, including on public money, committed by powerful, white, men, who almost never see any kind of accountability.

Taibbi’s main issue is this:

“We’ve become numb to the idea that rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.” (Loc. 80)

And how we got to this point. These are both cultural and structural issues:

“Finding the answer to some of this turns out to be easy, just simple math. Big companies have big lawyers, most street criminals do not, and prosecutors dread waging long wars against bottomless-pocketed megabanks when they can score win after easy win against common drug dealers, car thieves, and the like. After winning enough of these blowout victories, the justice bureaucracy starts drifting inexorably toward the no-sweat ten-second convictions and away from the expensive years-long battles of courtroom attrition.

Unquestionably, however, something else is at work, something that cuts deeper into the American psyche. We have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.

(…)

It’s come around to that point of view at the end of a long evolutionary process, in which the rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other.” (Loc. 141)

And that is the point, for Taibbi, is that one cannot understand what is going on in the United States without both sides of that picture: more than ever, and to an even greater extent, the rich do get richer, and the poor get prison (the 10th edition!).

“We’re creating a dystopia, where the mania of the state isn’t secrecy or censorship but unfairness. Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty, our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process. Winners get rich and get off. Losers go broke and go to jail. It isn’t just that some clever crook on Wall Street can steal a billion dollars and never see the inside of a courtroom; it’s that, plus the fact that some black teenager a few miles away can go to jail just for standing on a street corner, that makes the whole picture complete.” (Loc. 316)

This, for Taibbi, is a perfect illustration of the state of inequality in the US. And as we all know, what we witness today, and is described at length by Taibbi, is the culmination of trends that started in the 80s and led us to the 2008 recession. It is a combination of deregulation that let companies grow bigger and stronger, and therefore harder to prosecute, dismantling of the regulatory tools (Glass-Steagall), globalization and technological innovation that gave us stateless corporations.

And there is also a change in attitude towards prosecuting the corporate powerful that is encapsulated by the 1999 “collateral damage” memo penned by Eric Holder that started the idea that prosecuting corporations might lead to the collateral damage of job loss and community damages, and that these collateral damages should figure in prosecuting decisions. Funny how we never asked the question of collateral damages when government drafted the War on Drugs legislation that would devastate entire communities through the massive incarceration of young African-American men.

“From abandoning criminal prosecutions in favor of deferred prosecutions and nonprosecution agreements, the state now began to emphasize fines as a new means of settling with white-collar criminals.” (29)

And gloating about the imposition of what looks like heavy fines to us mortals, but are mere pennies to the corporations that have to pay them.

This change also has to do with a mechanism that C. Wright Mill would have recognized very-well: the power elite revolving door:

“The same process was now about to transform the federal law enforcement system, thanks in large part to new president Obama, who ushered in a herd of Ivy Leaguers and high-powered corporate defense lawyers to be his top crime-fighting officials. This new crowd of bookish lawyers was headlined by the Columbia University/Covington & Burling duo of Holder as attorney general and Lanny Breuer as head of Justice’s Criminal Division, essentially the top crime-fighting job in the country.” (31)

And indeed, Taibbi devotes a few chapters explaining how the recession of 2008 was neither a technical screw-up, or a few bad apples, or reckless borrowers, but corporate crime on a massive scale:

“Not mere technical violations, mind you, not just a thumb on a scale here and there, but crime, real crime, the kind of thing people once went to jail for. Specifically, this was a massive criminal fraud scheme, something akin to a giant counterfeiting operation, in which banks mass-produced extremely risky, low-quality subprime mortgages and with lightning-quick efficiency sold them off to institutional sucker-investors as highly rated AAA bonds. The hot potato game targeted unions, pension funds, and government-backed mortgage companies like Fannie Mae on the secondary market.” (38)

Time and time again, the evidence is there for law enforcement to see and yet, nothing happens. Part of the reason is collateral damage (a version of Davis / Moore explanation for stratification: some people are just more functionally necessary than others): just a whiff of possible job loss is enough to make prosecutors back off. But there is also the fact that large banks and corporations can marshall armies of well-paid, private attorneys to drag their cases for years, at great costs to underfunded government agencies that do not have the manpower to deal with such complicated cases, and with the risk of losing in the end. It’s better just to slap a fine that will look big to the public and will spare everybody else. And as the quote above notes, most of Obama’s top Justice department officials come from corporate law firms. There is a certain amount of empathy and thinking that, really, these are not “real” crimes.

But go to the other end of the social ladder and one can observe the legacy of another awesome gift from the 80s: the broken windows theory of law enforcement. This is a version of the slippery slope trope: if you let petty crime go unpunished (broken windows), then, you open the door to more serious criminality. So, the solution is to crack down on petty crime to prevent said slippery slope. Stop-and-frisk is an avatar of that idea, with extra dose of racism on top.

“These were programs like the infamous CompStat system and other lesser-known outgrowths of the celebrated “broken windows” urban policing strategies, programs whose effectiveness depended upon massive numbers of low-level arrests for minor violations.

All over America, indigents or the merely poor were being hauled in in ridiculous numbers, often detained even if just for a short time, given tickets, and searched. These cast-a-wide-net street-policing strategies were ostensibly designed to snag illegal guns or serious criminals with outstanding warrants, but they didn’t always work out that way. At exactly the time Holder was penning his famous memo in the late 1990s, the abjectly purposeless arrest was becoming more and more common, even as, perversely, the numbers of actual violent crimes committed had begun to drop precipitously.

And as every individual who’s ever been charged with a crime knows, anyone facing criminal arrest can expect collateral consequences. A single drug charge can ruin a person’s chances for obtaining a student loan or a government job. It can nix his or her chances of getting housing aid or a whole range of services—even innocent members of your family may lose access to government benefits. You can lose your right to vote and your access to financial aid. You can even have your children taken away.

But no police anywhere were officially asked to weigh the collateral consequences of arrests for prostitution, stealing cars, assault, selling weed, jumping turnstiles, even the simple offense of being homeless. There’s no memo in the Justice Department that wonders aloud what happens to the families of those sorts of arrestees. Instead, the new trend in policing is and has been to aggressively no longer care about any of it.” (52)

An additional consequences of the application of this kind of criminology (if you can call it that), in addition to its failure, is that it shatters any kind of legitimacy the police might have in poor and minority neighborhoods

And, so, for Taibbi, the divide in the United States today is between the arrestable and nonarrestable classes. The arrestable classes are the poor, the minorities, the single mothers, the undocumented migrants, for such crimes as standing on the street (if you don’t believe that black men are being arrested for standing on the sidewalk and talking to people  – loitering – you need to get out more).

The chapter that Taibbi devotes to stop-and-frisk is a kafkaesque nightmare where black men can be arrested 50, 60 times for just being there, not charged, but detained for days (hello, job loss), then having to deal with the court system (having to show up multiple times, whether it works with one’s job or not or be convicted in absentia), being represented by overburdened public defenders (when they’re not incompetent), and finally, being pushed to accept a deal that might leave one free, but with a criminal record. Don’t even think about fighting back against baseless charges. Justice by attrition.

Of course, the mechanism is well-known: after having pushed countless African-American men to agree to plea agreements, the criminal justice system then uses these aggregated masses of conviction to declare African-Americans as a criminal class to be subjected to more law enforcement, and the cycle repeats itself.

The power of Taibbi’s book is in these stories: of being arrested while coming home from work and not being able to show up for work the next day because one has not yet been processed, being caught in a dragnet where what matters is the stats (can anyone say “big data”?), and they have to be big. And the people caught in this nightmarish “logic” do not have the armies of well-paid private attorneys to fight back against it. So, they agree to plea just so they can go home and not have to show up for court again, but now, they have a record. And then, they get arrested again, and again, and again… and now they have a record.

“There are two important concepts here that work hand in hand. One, there’s the idea that failure to follow a police order, no matter how stupid or unreasonable, is cause for an arrest or a summons. The second idea is that the prosecutor can essentially turn any misdemeanor case against almost anyone into a de facto conviction, simply by filing charges and following through long enough with pretrial pressure to wrest a plea out of the accused.

These two concepts operating together have resulted in a new policing method, one that relies upon thousands of arrests for trivial offenses, real and imagined.” (130)

On the other hand, when it comes to corporate crime, it’s all different.

“What’s happened now, in this new era of settlements and nonprosecutions, is that the state has formally surrendered to its own excuses. It has decided just to punt from the start and take the money, which doesn’t become really wrong until it turns around the next day and decides to double down on the less-defended, flooring it all the way to trial against a welfare mom or some joker who sold a brick of dope in the projects.

(…)

That’s what nobody gets, that the two approaches to justice may individually make a kind of sense, but side by side they’re a dystopia, where common city courts become factories for turning poor people into prisoners, while federal prosecutors on the white-collar beat turn into overpriced garbage men, who behind closed doors quietly dispose of the sins of the rich for a fee.” (84)

Emphasis mine. This quote is quintessential Taibbi.

Taibbi then moves on to re-telling the story of the Lehman Brothers collapse but the point is the opposite as with stop-and-frisk: high crime, committed by people in high places, no criminal accountability. Taibbi is pretty good at explaining the complex machinations involved with securitization. That could be a tedious topic but it is not. But actually, prosecutors do count on the fact that this stuff is boring and complicated so, the public will not be clamoring for prosecution, especially when the party line on the media is that what happens might be unethical (it is) but not illegal (though it is). Taibbi does a good job of explaining the illegal nature of it all.

Taibbi then turns to his second case of the powerless getting the book thrown at them when the powerful get off scots-free: Gainesville, Florida:

“A ferocious federal immigration rule called 287(g) that essentially deputizes any and all state and local law enforcement officials to arrest undocumented aliens on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Today every local official with a badge—every cop, sheriff, ranger, or even game warden—has the power to instantly separate children from mothers, husbands from wives. All America, from the smallest town on up, has become a dragnet.” (199)

And here again, people arrested are thrown into a bureaucratic mess that also now involves private prisons, that Taibbi describes as such:

“A giant legal purgatory in which detainees don’t have any real rights or enjoy any real due process. People disappear into it, hundreds of thousands a year, and become less like prisoners with rights than like objects or packages to be crated and shipped out like cargo. ICE even has a UPS-style tracking system that allows immigrant families to punch in a number and see where their deported relative is in his or her serpentine journey through the detention system. In the real justice system, you get habeas corpus; in the shadow system, you get a tracking number to see where your familial “package” is. (201)

Similarly, the power of this is in the individual stories of people actually caught up in this system. The ICE system is described in gruesome details, with immigration judges that are actually employees of the Department of Homeland security, the pushing of stipulations (the ICE equivalent of plea bargains whereby migrants get deported fast, before they get to see an attorney), etc.

And there is a class divide here as well:

“There’s a new class of people whose goal is to become above citizenship. Live in America, conduct your trades in the weaker regulatory arena in London, pay your taxes in Antigua or the Isle of Man. Keep the rights but offshore the responsibilities. The flip side is that there is a growing subset of people, like undocumented immigrants, who live below the level of full citizenship. If the first group is stateless by choice, these people are involuntarily stateless and have virtually no rights at all.” (206)

And with private prisons in the mix, as Taibbi puts it, migrants are the new cash crop. And the consequences are also far-reaching. Basically, the whole arrest / deportation system puts its victims in the hands of cartels in Mexico as this is who meets them when they get thrown across the border. And this is all very profitable:

“Overall, the corrections industry is one of the soundest stock/equity bets in the world, with soaring revenues—the industry as a whole pulled in more than $5 billion in America in 2011.

The jailing-Hispanics business is the perfect mix of politics and profit. Companies like CCA donate generously to politicians everywhere, particularly at the state level. The firm has spent as much as $3.4 million lobbying in a single year and on average spends between $1 million and $2 million a year.

(…)

Local police forces go along because the federal government compensates them for their detention of immigrants. A program called the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) pays local police forces out of the federal kitty for any detained immigrants who meet certain criteria (they’re undocumented, they stayed for at least four days, and they’ve been convicted of at least two misdemeanors). According to the GAO, states received about $1.6 billion annually in SCAAP payments through the end of the 2000s, and the numbers are likely to rise in this decade.” (215)

And this where this connects to corporate crimes of massive scale:

“In many states across the country still, immigrants from south of the border have to take taxis and bicycles everywhere they go, because the law enforcement presence is so massive that traveling any other way is a huge risk. Capture can mean the loss of everything, from never seeing a spouse again to being kidnapped, in addition to being thrust into debt for years. And this is for crimes that are essentially administrative in nature, immigrating in a proscribed way, trying to live without the right papers.

But on the flip side, there are certain kinds of crimes a native-born American can commit without any risk of arrest at all. It turns out that we prosecute administrative/political violations like serious crimes, and serious crimes like administrative violations. ” (241)

Probably because he could not resist, Taibbi also includes in the book the story of a Canadian company, Fairfax, to illustrate that not only were Wall Street people criminals, but also insane and malevolent and yet, get away with it.

Finally, Taibbi gets to its 3rd case of the way the powerless are handled by governmental bureaucratic systems: the welfare system. Here again, the stories are powerful. The amount of humiliation and degradation one has to endure to get measly benefits in the US, or, as is shown in the book, in California, is enormous. And here as well, that system is a nightmare:

“Today, every single person who applies for aid and is accepted has to be preemptively searched. These people are almost all nonwhite. And while in L.A. in the late 1980s, the person visiting the home of someone like Maria Espinosa was just a social worker from the local welfare office, the state has since upgraded. In San Diego now it’s a law enforcement official, a representative of the district attorney’s office, who comes in to look through your underwear drawer.” (316)

Because, you see, one has to be sure that the sluts are not living with a man as that would automatically be considered fraud. So, you apply for welfare, and then, you have to sit at home, sometimes for weeks, waiting for some guy to show up and go through all your stuff, while he insults you throughout the entire ordeal. These guys really seem to get off on that power. Too bad if you have a job though or if you need to go to the doctor. If you are not home when the official shows up, no benefits. The idea is that if you request aid, then, you have to be willing to endure all kinds of abuse without protesting.

“In those tens of thousands of searches over the years, P100 investigators have looked in every nook and cranny, finding sins everywhere. They rejected an applicant who shared an apartment with a roommate for failing to properly label her food in the refrigerator—how could the state be sure, after all, that the applicant wasn’t illegally sharing food with her roommate? They rejected a woman for having a Victoria’s Secret bra (“How can you afford this?” the investigator asked, again holding up the item with the favored pencil eraser end), for having too big a jacket in the closet (it must be a man’s!), for having a teenage son whose pants were too ghetto (too baggy—again, it must be a man’s clothes). Searchers looked in dresser drawers, in bathrooms, in freezers and refrigerators, under and behind couches, everywhere.” (317)

And so, if you need public assistance, your basic rights are forfeit. Protection against illegal search and seizure? You have to give that up. Oh, and never mind the bureaucratic mistakes that are made within the system and leave people without benefits. These are practically impossible to correct. And the way the system works, you never get to talk to the same caseworker twice. Every call or every visit to a welfare office will land you a different person that has to start from scratch and may have a different opinion on your case (that’s of course, after the several weeks it takes to get into the system in the first place).

“The entire world becomes a legal minefield. If you’re poor and on public assistance, just about anything you do that defines you as a living human being can turn into the basis of a fraud case. Getting laid can be fraud. Getting sick can be fraud. Putting your kids in day care can be fraud. Not “sounding poor” can be fraud.

(…)

I spent a year following a few people in different parts of the country and watched as they tried to receive their benefits on the one hand and avoid being prosecuted for fraud on the other. Both activities turn out to be essentially full-time jobs.” (329)

And in this case, it all started with Bill Clinton and welfare reform. As banks and corporations became more and more deregulated, the lives of the poor and minority became more and more regulated. Corporate fraud is massive, but it is welfare fraud that is massively investigated.

Oh, and here’s the kicker:

“For instance, in 2011, the state of Ohio—the same state that lost tens of millions in the early 2000s when its pension fund bought severely overpriced mortgage-backed securities from a Lehman Brothers banker named John Kasich, who would later become governor—tried to recoup some of its losses by sending out 22,000 notices to Ohioans seeking “overpayments” in either welfare or food stamps. Many if not most of these “overpayments” were actually the state’s own errors, but they went as far back as 1986 anyway, seeking checks as small as $78.” (341)

Taibbi’s chapter on robosigning and the epidemic of illegal foreclosures is also horrifying regarding the way deregulation led to rampant criminality. And the pity the poor whistle-blower who ends up living in a trailer for her conscience.

For credit card debt, the game is even more rigged:

“Once a bank like Chase “serves” its delinquent customer, there are just three paths on the flowchart of outcomes. They are:

The customer doesn’t show up in court and loses by default judgment.

The customer answers the summons and settles with the bank.

The customer answers the summons and contests the case.

In the first two cases—and this is a crucial part of this entire scheme, and the key reason that Linda’s bosses were so unconcerned about the absence of good paperwork in the debt sale—the collector typically does not come into court with any supporting documentary evidence. “They almost never have [evidence] on the first appearance,” says Straniere. All the collectors have, typically, is a complaint and the assertion of an owed balance. But in the vast majority of cases, that’s enough. Two-thirds of the time, the defendant doesn’t show and loses automatically.” (374)

And defendants don’t show up because collectors only have to say they delivered the summons, no signature or receipt needed. Too bad if you changed address and the summons never reached you. But if the defendant shows up and contests the case, collectors usually simply drop the case.

But the bottom line is this:

“What all this means is that the bulk of the credit card collection business is conducted without any supporting documentation showing up or being seen by human eyes at any part of the process. The meat of the business is collecting unopposed default judgments from defendants who either never receive a summons or receive one and never appear in court.

For debt buyers like DebtOne, the whole game is a bluff. If they buy a pile of open accounts or already-won judgments, what they’re banking on is collecting from delinquent customers who don’t fight back.” (376).

So, what does this amount to? None of this is dysfunctional or a system of justice gone wrong. It is all by design and the designers might even convince themselves that this is the way things should be.

“There’s a concrete difference between how we treat an individual who commits fraud within the structure of a giant multinational company with a lot of settlement money lying around, and how we treat, say, an ordinary broke person who commits welfare or unemployment fraud.

If you choose to take the money over and over again from the Wall Street crowd while the welfare moms keep getting jail and community service, now suddenly you’ve institutionalized the imbalance. From there, it’s not long before the tail starts wagging the dog. A massive, unconscious tendency toward reverse profiling occurs. Because, thanks to all these various factors, executives from giant multinationals simply don’t end up in the prison population, law enforcement soon starts to operate on the reverse principle, that those huge companies are not the places where jailable crimes take place. So even white-collar investigators start to look for targets elsewhere, like at smaller businesses.” (408)

Again, emphasis mine.

So, obviously, this is a very rich, well-researched, detailed book, but very well-written narratives and stories that will make your blood boil more than once.

Highly recommended.

Hallsworth[Disclaimer: the publisher sent me a copy of this book for review.]

Simon Hallsworth’s The Gang and Beyond: Interpreting Violent Street Worlds is as much a study on gangs in the context of street informal organizations and of critical criminology. Come to think of it, it reads like a “how-to” and “how-not-to” study gangs.

The focus of the book is on the UK context but some of critiques and prescriptions are more broadly applicable (especially considering the apparent fondness of US “gang experts” in the UK policy-making circles). Overall, the book does not pull punches when it comes to the current state of the field of gang research and policy-making, and advocates for a different way of analyzing gangs.

In a sense, what Hallsworth advocates is a return to Durkheim’s original prescription for social research: do not accept commonsense categories as the unquestioned starting point for analysis. These categories are not neutral. They are the product of history and power relations within given field (to rope in Bourdieu). And so, to accept these categories without subjecting them to analysis is to commit an elementary mistake and therefore contribute to the reproduction of the power relations that gave rise to these categories in the first place.

For Hallsworth, this applies especially to categories such as “gangs”, “gang culture”, or “gang problem” which are then used to deploy a whole field of experts, policies, and prescriptions dedicated to dealing with the “gang problem”. The contestation of this deployment is the central theme of the book:

“Where do I situate my analysis? To begin with, it marks my response to the position staked out by John Pitts and his followers who see gangs today as the new face of youth crime and who, by and large, appear happy to blame them for everything. As will become clear, I have no time whatsoever for this position. I do not accept that gangs are the new face of youth crime; I do not accept that gangs today are large and corporate, and nor do I hold with other widely-held gang ‘truths’ as exemplified in claims to the effect that they coercively recruit members or are habitual rapists. The book is, then, in one respect at least, a wholesale challenge to contemporary gang orthodoxy that prevails today in that confused state called the UK.” (13)

And so, Hallsworth proceeds to debunk the current myths (used and taken as true, though) regarding gangs:

  • The myth of the corporate gang as key drug-player: gangs exercise control over the drug trade in the UK in a very structured fashion with gang elders at the top of gangs structured as corporations all the way down to “tinies” and young gang members at the bottom.
  • The myth of the new gang violence in urban context.
  • The myth of the new weapons of the gang world: guns and dogs.
  • The myth of rape as new gang weapon.
  • The myth of gangs as forces in social destabilization (for instance, as causes and actors in the 2011 London riots, as blamed by PM Cameron).

For Hallsworth, the bottom line to all these myths is that they are variants of “kids, these days”. They assume the complete novelty of drugs and violence rather than a permanent, and long-standing feature of street life in the UK, especially in working class areas. There are many continuities between past street life features and present, such as

  • violent territorialism
  • drug dealing
  • street-fighting kids

But then, if these continuities were acknowledged, where would the moral entrepreneurs du jour find their moral panic?

One of the main critiques that Hallsworth deploys is against what he calls gang-talk and gang-talkers. Gang-talk is the commonsense narrative (constructed and repeatedly used by gang-talkers – the “experts” on gangs – and conveniently propagated by the media and politicians), repeating most of the myths listed above: that the gang threat is new, unprecedented, growing, more dangerous than ever, because the gangs are now structured like corporations (except criminal) and recruit younger and younger members who can never leave the gang once in.

“‘Gang talk’ has come to provide the interpretive grid by and through which divergent social problems are rendered legible, even when the events in question are by no means solely or even remotely gang-related.

(…)

Gang talk, I will argue, constitutes a free-floating discourse that can operate wholly independently of gang realities as these unfold in any street context” (68-9)

As Hallsworth puts it, gang talk is a language game (a la Wittgenstein), with its own vocabulary, rules of composition, and structure. Therefore, gang-talk propagates a series of tropes about gangs, that are then accepted and repeated without examination, but that are supposed to expose the “truth” of the gangs. This is all performative logic: the more the tropes of gang talk are uncritically repeated across media, the more they are taken as accurate description of the reality of the gangs. Conversely, any alternative perspective on gangs will be met with resistance and skepticism, and ultimately silenced as not fitting the tropes of gang talk. As dominant discourse, then, gang talk becomes the only plausible narrative as it becomes embedded in commonsense.

Gang talk, however, is neither neutral nor benign. It is a discourse of power:

“By ‘gang talk’, I mean to designate a discourse about gangs that has wide currency. It is a discourse that operates to make meaningful the world of gangs both to those who produce this discourse and to others who are receptors of it. By and large, the producers of gang talk (hereafter ‘gang-talkers’) are those with a vested interest in gangs (of some sort) but who are not of the world of gangs they talk about. They may be journalists looking for a good story about them, enforcement agencies that want to suppress them, practitioners on the hunt for gang suppression money, the public who are scared of them, academics wanting to study them, or policy-makers who have been given the mission of developing anti-gang strategies.” (70)

Again, this sounds a lot like Becker’s moral entrepreneurs and it is not surprising that gang members themselves adopt the tropes of gang talk along the way, as dominant cultural discourse. Nevertheless, gang talk is a fantasized representation rather than objective description but it is treated as such.

As conspiracy discourse, gang has the following elements:

  • Novelty: the kinds of gangs we have today are completely new and we have never seen anything like it before… and they are spreading.
  • Proliferation: they were a few of them, now there are many (add: immigration has something to do with that), and now, there are even women and children joining in.
  • Corporatization: gangs used to be disorganized, but now, they are structured like corporations and formal organizations.
  • Weaponization (I’m not sure it’s a word and Hallsworth spells it the British way, with an “s” rather than a “z”… I americanized it): instead of fists and boots, now, they have guns and dogs. They are more violent and deadly.
  • Penetration: they expand outside of their usual territories and colonize new ones.
  • Monstruousness: gang members are different from “normal” people.

[Sorry but those are the concepts used by Hallsworth.]

Out of these generic ideas, gang-talkers can extract gang membership checklists (Hallsworth provides a full one) and they read like the old Reefer Madness and include such things “dropping out of positive activities”, whatever the heck that means. Such items of gang membership are convenient because they can depict pretty much everybody, and so, if one goes looking for gang members, then, one is guaranteed to find them.

But again, gang talk is neither neutral nor benign:

“But there is also an ideological function to gang talk that needs to be acknowledged. In the post-welfare, neoliberal state where penal-fare as opposed to welfare increasingly defines the way in which poverty is managed (Wacquant 2009); gang talk helps establish the terms in and by which the global precariat, the losers in the neoliberal, winner-takes-all society, are now defined. Together with underclass thinking more generally, it reconstructs the lives of the urban poor as feral outsiders; as a population to whom pain dispensation appears necessary and not least just. It constructs them in Neil Christie’s terms as a suitable enemy at the same time it establishes the included society as a suitable victim.” (83)

And it accomplishes this through othering those designated as gang members as part of logic of the moral panic involving the usual components of exaggeration, distortion, prediction, and symbolization.

In addition to his critique of gang talk and gang-talkers, Hallsworth provides a counterpoint to a specific trope of gang talk, namely, the idea that gangs are not structured like corporations and formal organizations. According to this trope, the gang now resembles a typical Weberian bureaucracy, with its hierarchy, impersonality, rules and regulations, top-down governance, and division of labor, etc.

Hallsworth describes this mode of thinking (the gang as bureaucracy) as arborealism and describes it as shown below (sorry, bad picture from page 117):

Arborealism

Hallsworth argues that gangs are informal organizations with a rhizomatic structure (see Deleuze and Guattari), as depicted below:

Rhizome

 

This structure is very much akin to a flexible network, with nodes, clusters, and links, always in a state of reconfiguration based on the demands of the situation and the structural constraints under which the gang operates. Nodes move in and out of the network and are loosely connected to it (as opposed to the “military” model of recruitment promoted by gang-talkers). A rhizomatic structure is decentered and non-hierarchical and the intersections between nodes are not as predictable as those of bureaucratic structures. And where a tree-like bureaucracy is heavily territorialized, a rhizomatic structure is deterritorialized.

Now, Hallsworth does not argue for an “either/or” typology here. Gangs may follow hybrid structures as well but it is misleading and inappropriate to use the corporate structure as model for the gang, as this would lead to a Gilbert Ryle-type of category mistake. How could gangs be bureaucratic when relationships are based on kinship and clientelism and violence is valued. Gangs are also not impersonal organizations. Quite the opposite, actually, as relationships are highly personal. Moreover, because of the larger social context and the illegal activities that gang members engage in, reality is highly unpredictable and cannot be made more certain just by wishing it or issuing a few memos and new regulations. Most of gang actions are situational and contextual, and ever-changing. And if there is a business logic at work sometimes, it is complicated personal and emotional factors that can lead to violence and deaths, and sometimes, for stupid reasons. Because gang life is inherently unstable, so is its structuring. And it is this instability that make it almost impossible for gang to structure bureaucratically and territorialize. In this sense, gangs are assemblages more than formal organizations.

And when gangs do end up territorialized, it has more to do with discriminatory practices that “lock them up” in ghettos (or estates) than with anything else. Those are usually deprived environments where the legitimate economy is poorly represented and therefore where the informal one is more likely to take roots with the corresponding informal organizations. And so then territorial borders are not as hard and fast as gang-talkers make them to be as gang members are not just tied to the gang but also to family members and relatives living in the same projects or estates.

Regarding the drug and violence aspects, Hallsworth identifies three main imperatives of street life (but not exclusive to it): the search for pleasure, the search for money, and the search for respect. On this, in a very Mertonian fashion (see: strain theory), Hallsworth argues that drugs and violence play a part in all three imperative in a deprived context. And all three imperatives are fulfilled in a context of hegemonic masculinity (see: Connell) that is not new to young working-class men. In this sense, a lot of the violence that is attributed to gangs is actually part of the larger context of street life for the working class. That is the appropriate framework and context to understand it.

These three imperatives are fulfilled young working class men in the context of their exclusion from upward mobility:

Mobility-Compared-nnwvjt

But this is also in the context of their inclusion into the larger consumer culture.

And so, they innovate, as, again, mode of adaptation to the strain, as Robert Merton conceptualized it. The persistent presence of these men on the street, hanging out, reflects their waiting for opportunities and figuring out where the action is, for pleasure, money or respect.

Finally, Hallsworth connects what is truly the novel aspect here: the rise of the precariat. This is the larger context for informal street life and informal street organizations. In the post-War period – the rise of the welfare state – violence and drugs were not unknown. However, there was greater local regulation of it. And as soon as young men left school for the factory, got jobs, got married, then, they left the informal organizations behind.

In the current neoliberal context, inaugurated by Thatcher, this trajectory no longer exists. Mass deindustrialization and precarization have destroyed the fairly linear path from basic education to factory work, from adolescence to adulthood. The normative context of regulation from within the working-class is gone. To be sure, part of this normative context was hegemonic masculinity, and that has not changed.

But again, what is truly new is the precarization of the working class and the structural violence unleashed by right-wing governance (yes, including New Labour). I do wish the concept of structural violence were used more as it provides a powerful explanation for self-destructive interpersonal violence at play now, in the context of stalled social mobility in the face of consumer culture. Paraphrasing Bauman, Hallsworth then call the members of street organizations the “flawed consumers” of late modernity.

But gang-talkers have no interest in that socio-economic context. Hence, Hallsworth ends his book with a tongue-in-cheek list of lessons on how to develop a gang problem:

  • Lesson 1: Turn a problem of groups into a problem of gangs (that is, treat any group or collective behavior AS gang behavior)
  • Lesson 2: work closely with journalists (they love sensationalism)
  • Lesson 3: create a dedicated gang-busting unit
  • Lesson 4: employ academic ‘gang experts’ to confirm your problem (bonus if they come loaded with meaningless data)
  • Lesson 5: create a gang-intervention strategy (ban all sorts of thing: like hanging around)
  • Lesson 6: bring on the practitioners: academics, of course, but also former gang members (everyone loves redemption stories) but do not include long-term field practitioners, focus on short-term strategies couched in buzzwords.
  • Lesson 7: cash in and live well.

Now, this is a really interesting book. I could have done without the chapter on biographical ethnography. It did not add much to the overall thesis of the book. And as I was reading it, I could not help but think that the famous Gang Leader for A Day fell into all the traps that Hallsworth warns against, and constitutes a form of gang talk in itself (after all, it made its author quite famous for an academic).

I think this is a must-read for all criminal justice, criminology students and academics, as well as sociologists of deviance.

Barbara Garson‘s Down The Up Escalator – How The 99% Live is part of the non-fiction sub-genre of “the human face of [insert socioeconomic trend here]”. In this case, the trend is the precarization of the American workforce. This book is not dissimilar from Louis Uchitelle’s The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. On both cases, the focus is on the precarization of workers whose jobs are not supposed to be precarious: they are not part of the uneducated employees of Walmart or fast food joints.

Garson’s book depicts the latest consequences of the 2008 recession:

“For all my intellectual grasp of the downward trends for American workers, I just can’t believe that these four generous/selfish, mellow/excitable, unique/ordinary, and highly employable individuals will simply remain the long-term unemployed. Even though they might.” (Loc. 660)

Indeed, Garson’s book is a series of vignettes about people who thought their lives were relatively secure only to have the rug pulled from under their feet either because of unscrupulous mortgage lenders, the lay-offs following the recession, or just plain bad luck. These people never thought they would face precarization first-hand so fast. Most of Garson’s interviewees are educated, have been connected to the labor market for a long time. Heck, several of them are part of the much-vaunted creative class. This was not supposed to happen to them. For those, they did not go underwater quickly as their previously high-paying jobs gave them savings, and some margins that allowed them to have expenses that could be cut back. But things are not looking up for them.

“The Kennys may indeed have failed to grasp opportunities that would leapfrog them over others. But their basic economic mistake was to assume that salaries, house prices, and savings would gradually increase over the years. In other words, the Kennys fell behind because they didn’t fully grasp that they weren’t going to get ahead.

(…)

But adjusting to downward mobility would have required a midlife course correction that’s inimical to Americans of their generation. As I’ve said, down is an un-American direction.” (Loc. 1193)

By following her subjects over a period of time, Garson can see the progressive destabilization that marks these people’s lives as things do not improve for them. Sure, a few of them make mistakes along the way, but this is what happens in Bauman’s liquid society where individuals are supposed to find their own solutions, on their own, to structural problems foisted upon them. And, especially for the African American and working class (often overlapping) subjects of Garson’s book, there is no margin for error. To find individual solutions to systemic problems is no easy task. As several of Garson’s subjects show, it takes time, perseverance to face a mortgage modification system that is downright Kafkaesque (and full of very shady people).

“To most underwater homeowners, the word “modification” referred to an ineffective government program meant to keep people in their houses. But there are many ways to modify the terms of a mortgage. Litton Loan Servicing is known among consumer advocates for offering mortgage modifications that fail and leave homeowners owing more than ever. This is how that works out profitably for them: Normally, a mortgage servicer passes along all of the interest and principal it collects to the banks or investors who own the mortgages. The servicer earns its money from regular service fees, late penalties, and special charges like the ones involved in modifications. But a mortgage servicer normally can’t offer a modification (a change in a loan’s basic terms) without the consent of the loan’s owner. This, as we’ve seen, can be hard to get. But Litton and its associates buy up delinquent or otherwise malodorous mortgages at a discount. With the original investors out of the picture, Litton is free to grant modifications in its own interest.

(…)

During the course of most Litton modifications or “trial” modifications, the homeowner’s payments can consist almost entirely of fees and new interest. By offering one likely-to-fail modification after another, Litton can collect payments like Alice Epps’s $4,939 a month for as long as the homeowner can pay. The company is free to raise or even lower the payments if it decides that’s the best way to squeeze out a few last drops. But since almost none of the money goes to paying off the mortgage debt, the recipients of Litton modifications often wind up owing more than they would have if they’d never been granted the favor. When they’ve paid all they can, they lose the house.” (Loc. 2576)

This would perfectly fit what Charles Derber describes as part of the sociopathic society (the title of his latest book):

“A sociopathic society breeds routinized, institutionalized pervasive and fierce sociopathy that chips away at its own foundations.

Sociopathy is antisocial behavior by an individual or institution that typically advances self-interest, such as making money, while harming others and attacking the fabric of society. In a sociopathic society, sociopathic behavior, by both individuals and institutions, is the outcome of dominant social values and power arrangements. A sociopathic society, paradoxically, creates dominant social norms that are antisocial – that is, norms that assault the well-being and survival of much of the population and undermine the social  bonds and sustainable environmental conditions essential to any form of social order.” (3-4)

Even though the book, for the most part, is a series of individual stories of downfall and getting stuck, Garson is not ignorant of where this is all coming from. And so, the book marshals statistical trends correctly putting the blame where it belongs: Reaganomics. The unraveling of the upper-middle and middle class we are witnessing is the end point of policies that started 30 years ago.

“When factories started closing or moving abroad in the 1970s and 1980s, we were told not to worry. Yes, some blue-collar workers might have to be pensioned off. But the rest of us would become “information workers” in the “postindustrial society.” The important thing was to acquire the skills of the future.

(…)

Something bad has been creeping up the occupational ladder. First it hit blue-collar workers like Duane; then it hit pink-collar office workers like his wife. The college educated appeared to be keeping a couple of rungs ahead of it. But starting in the late 1990s, real income has been falling sharply for people with college degrees—so far excluding PhDs. You might say that the Pink Slip Club members were a generation and a half behind (or ahead) of the people in Evansville. But it was catching up to them even before the downturn.” (Loc. 1213)

And this is the important part of that story: this is not something that just happened in the magical realm of economic markets, something that few superior humans can comprehend and no one should tamper with. This was by design. Hence the sociopathic society.

And the sociopaths are still around:

“This wild mortgage lending wasn’t dictated by masses of poor people storming the banks demanding credit. It was fueled by a relatively few people with large piles of money that desperately needed to be invested. Hedge fund owners, pension fund managers, and European bankers are among the folks who bought mortgage-backed securities. But like others charged with great piles of cash to invest, they can reasonably blame the money itself.” (Loc. 2738).

And they blamed the underwater homeowners as well, the poor, the African Americans, etc. This still speaks volume to the dominant ideological climate created over these past thirty years, mainly through the conglomeration of corporate media.

But what comes through loud and clear from Garson’s book is the corrosive nature (to paraphrase Richard Sennett) of the current system as precarization creeps up the social ladder. As Garson herself notes,

“None of the recession sufferers we spoke with in Down the Up Escalator were hungry, and only one was truly homeless. But most of them couldn’t be sure where or when they’ll work, how long they’ll be able to stay in their homes, whether they’ll ever be able to retire or to have a baby, and more generally what will happen next.” (Loc. 3494)

Welcome to the liquid society or the risk society or the sociopathic society. Take your pick. Either way, it is a pretty gloomy scenario.

This is overall an engaging and accessible read that really goes into some details of these individual stories, which reads like old-fashioned journalism. At the same time, it does take in the big picture without being to wonky. This is clearly a book for the general public and one hopes it gets wide  diffusion.

Here is a video of Barbara Garson on Bill Moyers:

Surviving the New American Economy from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

[This is a repost from a review I posted when this book came out, but it seems like the topic of unpaid internship is making a comeback on the Internet, so, revisiting this might be useful.]

Welcome to the brave new world of work, where you work more and get paid nothing! Travailler plus pour ne rien gagner (maybe that should be Sarkozy’s slogan for his reelection campaign!). This is the reality experienced by more and more people in the US, and thoroughly explored by Ross Perlin in Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.

The premise of the book is that internships have exploded in numbers as they have become an almost mandatory of someone’s education in order to gain legitimate entry on the labor market. But Perlin considers them to be “a form of mass exploitation hidden in plain sight” (xiv), with roughly 9.5 million college students, roughly 75% will participate in at least one internship before graduation. He argues that a significant share of those are unethical if not illegal.

In other words, interns are becoming the fastest-growing category of American workers, the largely unpaid ones.

The simple fact of non-payment, for Perlin, also points to the fact that internships have become a site of reproduction of privilege as only those of financially comfortable background can hope for the glamorous internships in Congress, in Hollywood or television and journalism that truly open doors for permanent (and paid) jobs, guaranteeing that the upper-classes will remain the major cultural producers in the mass media. In that sense, internships contribute to both exploitation and reproduction of inequalities in opportunities.

Finally, Perlin argues that internships devalue labor, especially for young people and at entry-level positions at the same time that interns may displace workers.

The book itself is full of a variety of examples in a diversity of settings. The first chapter is dedicated to the Disney internships whose promotion is so present at so many college campuses, as Disney runs one of the largest internship program, with 7,000 to 8,000 interns every year:

“In its scale and daring, the Disney Program is unusual, if not unique – a “total institution” in the spirit of Erving Goffman. Although technically legal, the program has grown up over thirty years with support from all sides with almost zero scrutiny to become an eerie model, a microcosm of an internship explosion gone haywire. An infinitesimally small number of College Program “graduates” are ultimately offered full-time positions at Disney. A harvest of minimum-wage labor masquerades as an academic exercise, with the nodding approval of collegiate functionaries. A temporary, inexperienced workforce gradually replaces well-trained, decently compensated full-timers, flouting unions and hurting the local economy. The word “internship” has many meanings, but at Disney World it signifies cheap, flexible labor for one of the world’s largest and best-known companies – magical, educational burger-flipping in the Happiest Place on Earth.” (3-4)

Needless to say, Perlin is merciless in his investigation of the world of internships, and Disney is not the only entity getting a drubbing, but is presented as somewhat representative of the trend: “a summer job with a thin veneer of education, virtually unleavened by substantive academic content.” (8).

Perlin identifies two major post-War trends that contributed to the internship explosion:

1. The rise of the “new” economy, post-industrialism, service jobs and networked capitalism along with its cohort of contingent labor. This casualization of the workforce is a well-known trait of the post-fordist regime based on flexibility and exploitation and the rise of the ubiquitous “independent contractor”, a catch-all category.

2. The rise of the field of Human Resources and the “Human capital” approach to education.

What this boils down to is what Bauman and Beck have described as individualization in the post-modern era. Students now have to see themselves as having to cultivate individually their own human capital and internships do just that. The student is his/her own entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of one’s self, one’s own independent contractor.

This is also part of the trend of vocationalism in education, that is, seeing education as job training rather than, well, education.

Perlin also notes that internships have also risen on the ashes of traditional apprenticeships that have a medieval connotation and have long been associated with industry and the trades. There are still a few apprenticeships in the US, they are usually paid, with benefits and unionization. There is still an Office of Apprenticeship as part of the government but it seems to be a well-kept secret and the trades are not the hot career when one dreams of working for Google.

I was also surprised to learn that a great deal of internships might actually be illegal (not that anyone is watching). The Fair Labor Standards Act is still the law of the land and, based on a US Supreme Court decision and explained by the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, one category of people is exempt from the FLSA provisions: trainees. And since the USSC has never ruled on interns, they are considered trainees, therefore exempt. Except that there are six condition that must ALL be met for trainees to be exempt, as listed by Perlin:

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school.
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee.
  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation.
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
  6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wage for the time spent in training.

All six criteria have to be met for a position to be considered exempt. If one of these provisions is not met, then, it’s a job and it falls under the provision of the FLSA. How many internships actually meet all six criteria? Who knows. So, employers just looking for cheap labors should not get interns or their internships are illegal. But again, who’s checking? Although Perlin does mention that the Obama administration did increase the number of DOL inspectors.

More than that, because they are not considered workers, unpaid interns receive none of the protection against discrimination or harassment that regular employees get (however inadequate) and they have no legal recourse. On the other hand, corporations receive $124 million annual contribution in the form of free labor.

Perlin is also severe in his critique with regards to what he considers the complicity of colleges and universities in the explosion of exploitative internships. Schools endorse internships without a second thought. Sometimes, they make money off of deal with employers or non-profit organizations. And they provide the academic cover in the form of academic credit for sometimes questionable internships. Often, academic credit is supposed to replace the pay that anyone would normally receive for the same work that interns do. So, not only do students pay for credit, but they don’t get any pay for the internship. They pay to work for free.

“In certain cases, paying college tuition to work for free can be justified – particularly if the school plays a central role in securing the internship and makes it a serious, substantive academic experience. Providing credit certainly can cost the school in terms of supervision time and administrative work, although the costs are unlikely to match those of a classroom experience. And in the most miserable, increasingly common scenario, employers use the credits in an attempt to legitimize illegal internships while universities charge for them and provide little in return, and interns are simply stuck running after them, paying thousands of dollars for the privilege of working for free.” (86)

Instead, of course, colleges and universities actively promote internships  just like they have online education as a low-cost (for them) option to get money from students. The worst offenders, in my view, have the (often for-profit) colleges and universities who offer their credits to highly expensive private internship-abroad organizations (both shall remain nameless, as in, no free publicity, but their practices are truly disgusting) who charge thousands of dollars for unpaid internships outside of the US, but there are also all the non-profit organizations, largely staffed by interns in the name of “service-learning” or the start-ups that wouldn’t even get off the ground if they didn’t use free labor. How many NGOs or such companies would not function without free labor? Or maybe they would need to revise their activities or business plans or pay interns minimum wage.

The other issue that is central, in my view, and that Perlin discusses at length, is this: what about the students who have mandatory internships in their curriculum but cannot afford unpaid work? Or whose parents cannot support them? Well, they get left behind in the race to pad one’s résumé with prestigious internships. In other words, the ability to engage in unpaid internships is yet another privilege that the already-privileged enjoy, at the expense of other students. While privileged students might spend the summer on Capitol Hill, interning for a Congressperson for free (even though there is a big bogus element to these internships, as Perlin shows), others actually have to work to pay for next year’s tuition.

And in addition to the experience and the lengthening of one’s CV, these privileged students get to network and accumulate social capital, something that their less privileged counterparts do not get to do. And finding prestigious internships in the first place is a matter of social connections. For instance, the donor to an NGO can pretty much impose to have a child or relative or friend as intern. Access matters a lot, when it comes to internships.

“Many internships, especially the small but influential sliver of unpaid and glamorous ones, are the preserve of  the upper-middle class and the super rich. These internships provide the already privileged with a significant head start that pays professional and financial dividends over time, as boosters never tire of repeating. The rich get richer or stay rich, in other words, thanks in part to prized internships, while the poor get poorer because they’re barred from the world of white-collar work, where high salaries are increasingly concentrated. For the well-to-do and wealthy families seeking to guarantee their offspring’s future prosperity, internships are a powerful investment vehicle, and an instrument of self-preservation in the same category as private tutoring, exclusive schools, and trust funds. Meanwhile, a vast group of low- and middle-income families stretch their finances thin to afford thankless unpaid positions, which are less and less likely to lead to real work, and a forgotten majority can’t afford to play the game at all.” (162)

And did I mention that women are more likely to get unpaid internships than men?

And you wonder why there is an ideological continuity between politics, news and think tanks and other organizations. It is a Village and they’ve interned there before.

Part of the issue is that there is a high demand for internships (as a result of becoming an academic / graduation requirement), so much so there are now internship auctions where employers auction an internship and potential interns bid on it, and it goes to the highest bidder but not the most qualified candidate.

Of course, other countries are getting on the action as well, exploiting interns. Remember Foxconn, the company that makes your iPad and other Apple goodies, that became famous because its working conditions were so awesome that workers kept killing themselves? So much so that they now have to sign contracts promising not to commit suicide? Yup, that Foxconn… Check this out:

“Foxconn seems to have become the world’s biggest abusers of internships. According to a detailed report recently compiled by university researchers in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the company uses interns extensively in at least five of its major plants, compensating them at the lowest possible pay grade (under $200 per month) and often forcing them against the law to work nights and overtime. In order to avoid paying for the medical and social welfare owed to regular employees, Foxconn has in some cases reportedly filled more than half of its assembly line jobs with interns – usually with the cooperation of hundreds of schools that stand to receive a fee in return.” (196)

Welcome to the new world of labor casualization, precarization and flexibility. These global workers now have their very own patron saint: San Precario

Also, San Precario is transgender. The five icons represent income, housing, health, communication and transport. That is, there is, hopefully, a rising movement against precarization, that includes interns, as part of the global civil society.

Perlin himself offers a series of recommendations to make internships more meaningful and more fair, based on the six criteria above. But most of all, his book is a wake-up call to a major trend that has gone largely unrecognized and unexamined, and one can see why. It is an important book for anyone interested in labor issues and the future of work.

So explains the always relevant Danny Dorling, using the UK as example. In this New Statesman article, he explains how the precariat came to be, along with increased stratification and frozen social mobility. It was all by design and it is the victors of the class war of the 1970s, with Margaret Thatcher as their main class warrior, who did on purpose. No, not the much reviled 1%, the 0.01%.

This visual is especially illustrative of this phenomenon:

“In 1945, when Thatcher turned 20, the richest 0.01 per cent people in Britain received 123 times the mean national average income. By the time she turned 40 in 1965 that had halved to 62 times, and the year before she came to power, in 1978, it was at its minimum: just 28 times the average income.

Britain in the 1970s was a very different world from the Britain of the 1940s. Thatcher’s class hated it. The class above her, the one that she joined, loathed the changes even more, and the class above that put its money where its anger was, funding think tanks, newspapers and young politicians to fight back.

(…)

By the time Thatcher left office in 1990 the annual incomes of the richest 0.01 per cent of society had climbed to 70 times the national mean, and the accelerating effect of her government’s actions multiplied that increase to 99 times the national mean by 1997. It is also well known that Thatcher said her greatest achievement was New Labour. By 2007, the incomes of the best-off 0.01 per cent were at 144 times the national mean average. That top share fell slightly in the 2008 crash, but it is thought to have bounced back since.”

That trend is clearly visible on the graph above.

And this is Dorling’s description of stratification in the UK:

“It can help to personalise class. To picture the richest 0.01 per cent of our society, think of newspaper proprietors such as the Barclay brothers, those extremely wealthy individuals who invited Thatcher to live at the Ritz, their hotel in London, in the months before she died. For the 0.1 per cent, think of people such as Denis and Margaret Thatcher, and for the 1 per cent think of Alfred Roberts. Social class does not depend on income alone; it is about relationships between people. The owner of two shops (the 1 per cent) doffs his cap to the duke (the 0.01 per cent) and between them the businessman (the 0.1 per cent) lobbies for a knighthood. Below all three the clerks (9 per cent) carry out humdrum duties and below all of them the 90 per cent are repeatedly categorised and recategorised by social scientists whose surveys, even if representative, usually do not give enough detail to differentiate well between the few at the top.”

And this is the UK stratification system that Thatcher, and then New Labour built:

“It has the top 1 per cent and the 9 per cent below it doing all right. Below this tier, the remaining top half of society is getting by on “modest” incomes. But those beneath this are now, in many ways, worse off than they were in 1983.

Of the bottom 50 per cent of people in Britain, all are financially insecure; most (30 per cent) are poorly housed by today’s standards; a large minority (20 per cent) cannot take part in normal social activities; below this minority most cannot now afford to heat their homes properly; and below them, one in every 15 (7 per cent) is poorly fed. The seven classes this produces could be labelled the rich (1 per cent), the affluent (9 per cent), the modest (40 per cent), the insecure (20 per cent), the shamed (10 per cent), the cold (13 per cent) and the hungry (7 per cent).”

This makes the UK looks less and less like a core country. Such dramatic stratification creates no social mobility, something I have discussed before, using this graph to illustrate it:

But this is also illustrated with this bar chart:

With a stratification system like this, one wonders how this country is supposed to get out of its recession. Dorling is pessimistic.

“A fraction of the income of the top 1 per cent would provide enough money to allow all who are going hungry to be fed adequately. But today the man who owns two grocer’s shops is richer than ever, because he charges more for his goods and pays less tax. And many more people will not be able to afford many of the basic items he sells.”

For more on the precariat, I have a series of blog post on the subject. See here.

By SocProf.

This seems to be the message of The House I Live In, Eugene Jarecki’s latest film.

I think this is a very important film to understand fully the War on Drugs. For many years, I used the PBS Frontline documentary Snitch to discuss the war on drugs in the US, but that movie has gotten old and a bit outdated. THILI can comfortably take its place because things have not gotten any less messy than they were when Snitch was made.

The film itself is about 1h40 long and the first half felt a bit disorganized to me as Jarecki jumped from one thing to another, from one case, one city, one person to another. I don’t really care for personal, tearing-at-your-heartstrings stories. But as the second half rolled around, it became gripping, and, to me, at least, way more interesting because it was less about individual cases, and more about the sociological aspects of the war on drugs.

I was especially glad to see a whole group of excellent contributors such as the great William Julius Wilson, Michelle Alexander, David Simon, of The Wire fame, Marc Mauer, Charles Ogletree, and Lincoln historian Richard Miller.

And, I won’t have to do my usual song and dance in class anymore, explaining how drug policy in the US is guided by racist considerations. There is a great short segment on just that. The film also does a great job of explaining how urban policy, by creating ghettos through redlining, fostering white flight to the suburbs, and the loss of inner-city jobs, also created the conditions for the emergence of an underground, informal economy based on drugs. And then, how the war on drugs policies unleashed the whole criminal justice system on disadvantaged, impoverished and precarized groups. And in inner cities, drug dealing is the only company in a company town. The film also shows the web of contradictory constraints that drug offenders face when they get released.

Interestingly as well, Jarecki interviews a lot of people from law enforcement and courts and demonstrates how the war on drugs distorted the functioning of these organizations by creating new systems of incentives based on mass arrests, mass conviction, and mass incarcerations, and how it distorted relationship between law enforcement and low-income communities. And how it has made a lot of private industries very profitable. And it only all cost $1 trillion dollars and 45 million arrests to get there.

David Simon:

“Nobody respects good police work more than me. As well as being a police reporter, my first book was about good police work. And there are a lot of detectives who I admire for their professionalism, for their craft, for their skill, for their nuance. The problem is that the drug war created an environment in which none of that was rewarded.

In a city like Baltimore, you can sit in your radio car and make a drug arrest without understanding or requiring probable cause [reasonable suspicion], without worrying about how you’re going to testify in court without perjuring yourself, without learning how to use and not be used by an informant, without learning how to write a search and seizure warrant, without doing any of the requisite things that makes a good cop into a great cop, somebody that can solve a murder, a rape, a robbery, a burglary. These are crimes that require police work. A drug arrest does not require anything other than getting out of your radio car and jacking people up against the side of the liquor store.

The problem is that that cop that made that cheap drug arrest, he’s going to get paid. He’s going to get the hours of overtime for taking the drugs down to ECU [the evidence control unit]. He’s going to get paid for processing the prisoner down at central booking. He’s going to get paid for sitting back at his desk and writing the paperwork for a couple hours. Then the case is going to get called to court and a prosecutor’s going to sign his overtime slip for two, three hours to show up for a case that’s probably going to be stetted [dropped] because it’s unconstitutional. And he’s going to do that 40, 50, 60 times a month. So his base pay might end up being half of what he’s actually paid as a police officer.

Meanwhile, nobody is learning the rudiments of police work that might make a patrolman into a good detective. In Baltimore, the clearance rates – our percentage of arrests for felonies – for rape, murder, robbery, auto theft, for the things that make a city unlivable – are half of what they once were.

Our drug arrest stats are twice what they once were. That makes a city unlivable. It creates a criminal atmosphere that has no deterrent. It makes a police department where nobody can solve a fucking crime.”

As the film progresses, the contributors’ words get harsher, as they take in the broader and broader picture of what has happened for the past 40 years (40 years!). David Simon, especially, explains how this policy – the war on drugs – is a way of disposing of the bottom 15% of society, considered to useless and disposable, and get rich (for some) while doing it. Ultimately, he calls the war on drugs a holocaust in slow motion.

In that sense, the war on drugs is a success. Not a success in terms of its publicly stated goals, but a success in terms of social control of the precarized classes. There is especially a very good segment on how methamphetamine is the new crack, except, this time, it is the displaced white, blue-collar workers who are targeted, and increasingly going to prison. The connection between economic deterioration for the working class, informal illegal economy and drug policy is a direct one. It is the social control of this potentially volatile population that mass incarceration successfully accomplishes.

So, again, with some qualification regarding the first half of the film, this is a great documentary with a lot of different, shorter segments that can be used separately. And, if my students are representative, they love to talk about drugs, so, this film has many segments that should provoke good discussions.

The state of inequalities in the United States was already extreme, compared to other wealthy countries, before the recession. But it does seem that there is a hardening of these inequalities as the recession triggered more predatory extraction not only by the private sectors but also by policy, as the Obama administration and Congress only disagree on how fast benefits and social insurance should be cut on the already vulnerable.

Here are a few examples of this hardening of predatory accumulation.

First off, wage theft:

“Even as the ranks of low-wage workers have swelled since the recession, Democratic and Republican legislatures in more than a dozen states have quietly slashed funding for the agencies that enforce minimum wage law. Budget cuts are no surprise in an era of austerity. Yet the effect of these cuts on wage-and-hour investigative units—charged with examining and settling wage disputes—has seriously compromised an essential line of defense for already vulnerable low-wage earners, according to experts. State labor officials and researchers around the country tellIn These Times that low-wage workers facing abusive employers increasingly have nowhere to turn.

The victims of nonpayment of owed wages—referred to as “wage theft”—are most frequently workers at the bottom of the income scale. The U.S. Department of Labor, which significantlyexpanded its investigative force under former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, can take wage theft cases, but it is less familiar with local particulars and is prohibited from investigating many employers covered by state laws. Most private attorneys are unwilling to take wage theft cases, since they involve comparatively small sums of money.

Former investigators interviewed for this article say that budget cuts over the past decade have impeded their ability to perform meaningful investigations. They paint a stark picture of weakened enforcement divisions, lacking both necessary staff and funding, that regularly close claims of wage theft that appear legitimate. Such closed cases represent de facto wins for employers.

“This sends a powerful message to employers that they’re not likely to get caught and that following minimum wage laws isn’t a priority,” says Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director at the National Employment Law Project. “It’s to the point where, in some industries, there’s no minimum wage floor at all.”

Cuts to state minimum wage investigative units have happened with almost no fanfare. The change reflects budgetary realities and also a successful decades-long attempt by business groups to frame employee protections as a partisan issue, not suitable for public dollars. As union ranks shrink and average wages decline, weakened labor law enforcement represents yet another locus of power shifting away from the interests of the labor movement.”

Ultimately, this boils down to people being evicted from their homes because a late paycheck means late rent. Weak or non-existent enforcement also provides an incentive for unscrupulous employers to not pay people properly or wait to see if people put up a fight to get their due. But wage theft is probably much more widespread than we think as there is little incentive to report and some people might not even date protest being underpaid or not realized of exactly how much they are being cheated. And with no enforcement, they are on their own.

Another way of redistributing wealth upward, rather than just not paying people, is to squeeze those at the bottom even more:

““If you are not happy, I will give you $25,000 cash,” he recalled the landlord’s representative telling him.

Though barely getting by on Social Security, Mr. Machan, a 68-year-old retiree, turned down the offer, saying he had nowhere else to go. But some of his neighbors in the building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — where the 71 rent-paying residents share bathrooms and there is no kitchen — told others they accepted similar cash payouts with the excitement of lottery winners and quickly vacated.

The landlord, Alan Lapes, was clearing out these tenants to accommodate a group of people not often regarded as desirable: New York’s homeless.

The city’s Department of Homeless Services pays many times the amount the rooms would usually rent for — spending over $3,000 a month for each threadbare room without a bathroom or kitchen — because of an acute shortage in shelters for homeless men and women.

Indeed, the amount the city pays — roughly half that amount goes to the landlord, while the other half pays for security and social services for homeless tenants — has encouraged Mr. Lapes to switch business models and become a major private operator of homeless shelters. He is by most measures the city’s largest and owns or leases about 20 of the 231 shelters citywide. Most of the other shelters and residences are run by the city or by nonprofit agencies, but his operation is profit-making, prompting criticism from advocates for the homeless and elected officials.”

Why is it so lucrative?

“The fact that these modest living spaces have such high rents opens a window on a peculiarity of the city’s overall homeless policy. That policy, which was put in place in response to court settlements in 1979 and 2008, requires the city, under threat of sizable fines, to find a roof immediately for every homeless person. It has given landlords willing to house the homeless leverage to dictate rental prices and other terms.

Although the 95th Street shelter where Mr. Machan lives has been opened under “emergency” rules, the contract is for five years at $122 daily per room and will cost the city a total of $47 million. “We’ve tried hard to make sure we’re getting the best deal for the city,” Seth Diamond, the commissioner of homeless services, said at the meeting in response to the criticism.

With the number of homeless people rising to 30-year record levels — over 47,216 people as of early this month, 20,000 of them children — the city has struggled to find landlords willing to accommodate a population that includes people with mental health and substance abuse problems. So the city has resorted to housing adults in single-room-occupancy buildings originally designed for long-term residents who pay stabilized rents.”

And, unsurprisingly, the conditions are less than optimal:

“At several of Mr. Lapes’s shelters, tenants — both homeless and longer-term residents — say the buildings are often characterized by violence, drug-use, mice, broken elevators, periods without heat and hot water, and violations of fire safety laws. At 237 West 107th Street, a six-story women’s shelter formerly known as the West Side Inn, many of the 200 tenants said they often waited for an hour or more to take a shower at one of the shared bathrooms on each floor.”

I believe the correct term for this is slumlording, and in this case, at the taxpayer’s expense, funneling public monies into private hands, with much profitability and no risk.

Another older form of extraction is through usury payday loans and if some states ban you, find friendlier ones or go offshore:

“Major banks have quickly become behind-the-scenes allies of Internet-based payday lenders that offer short-term loans with interest rates sometimes exceeding 500 percent.

With 15 states banning payday loans, a growing number of the lenders have set up online operations in more hospitable states or far-flung locales like Belize, Malta and the West Indies to more easily evade statewide caps on interest rates.

While the banks, which include giants like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, do not make the loans, they are a critical link for the lenders, enabling the lenders to withdraw payments automatically from borrowers’ bank accounts, even in states where the loans are banned entirely. In some cases, the banks allow lenders to tap checking accounts even after the customers have begged them to stop the withdrawals.”

The incentive for the banks is the overdraft fees they can collect on their clients’ accounts, so, they won’t stop the payments even when people ask them to:

“While the loans are simple to obtain — some online lenders promise approval in minutes with no credit check — they are tough to get rid of. Customers who want to repay their loan in full typically must contact the online lender at least three days before the next withdrawal. Otherwise, the lender automatically renews the loans at least monthly and withdraws only the interest owed. Under federal law, customers are allowed to stop authorized withdrawals from their account. Still, some borrowers say their banks do not heed requests to stop the loans.

Ivy Brodsky, 37, thought she had figured out a way to stop six payday lenders from taking money from her account when she visited her Chase branch in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn in March to close it. But Chase kept the account open and between April and May, the six Internet lenders tried to withdraw money from Ms. Brodsky’s account 55 times, according to bank records reviewed by The New York Times. Chase charged her $1,523 in fees — a combination of 44 insufficient fund fees, extended overdraft fees and service fees.

For Subrina Baptiste, 33, an educational assistant in Brooklyn, the overdraft fees levied by Chase cannibalized her child support income. She said she applied for a $400 loan from Loanshoponline.com and a $700 loan from Advancemetoday.com in 2011. The loans, with annual interest rates of 730 percent and 584 percent respectively, skirt New York law.

Ms. Baptiste said she asked Chase to revoke the automatic withdrawals in October 2011, but was told that she had to ask the lenders instead. In one month, her bank records show, the lenders tried to take money from her account at least six times. Chase charged her $812 in fees and deducted over $600 from her child-support payments to cover them.”

And, of course, the most institutionalized way to create a permanent underclass that will, at some point be subject to wage theft, slumlords and payday loans, are the ranks of the massively incarcerated.

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I do not follow sports, except for the World Cup of Soccer. And I especially do not follow American sports such as baseball, basketball or football (or as we Europeans call it, American football, since the real football is what Americans call soccer). But, I do enjoy reading Dave Zirin’s columns and books. So, I was happy to pick up his latest, Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down.

The book is a global tour of what sports trends that Zirin finds encouraging as they match his lefty politics. So, he takes us on a tour that includes the role of soccer fans in the revolution in Egypt and more broadly the Arab Spring, or athletes as labor fighting back against corporate league bosses and owners, women pushing for greater opportunities, and gay players coming out. Overall, Zirin sees major shifts in the world of sports, hence the “Game Over” title, as it points to the idea that sports is not the same. Something dramatic is changing. And as with any progressive change, there is backlash.

“Over the last thirty years, the athletic-industrial complex has transformed itself into a trillion dollar, global entity. One way it’s done this is by making its product and its players as explicitly apolitical as possible. From Peyton Manning to Derek Jeter to Danica Patrick, the dominant message projected by athletes has been that it’s far more important to be a brand than an individual, and that a modern jock should never sacrifice commercial concerns for political principle. This credo echoes Jesse Owens, the great Olympic star, who once said, “The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside.”

ESPN, twenty-four-hour talk radio, and a seemingly bottomless appetite for distraction have exploded the size of our sports world— and its profits— into the stratosphere. In conjunction with this expansion, politics has also been actively discouraged by management and slammed by sports columnists. Legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell toward the end of his life dubbed it rule number one of “the jockocracy”: sports and politics just don’t mix.

Yet over the last several years, the specter of politics has been haunting sports. Cosell’s Golden Rule has been repeatedly and flagrantly breached. More athletes are speaking out across the political spectrum as a series of revolutions, occupations, and protests has defined the global landscape. The real world is gaining on the sports world and the sports world is starting to look over its shoulder.” (Locs. 258-270)

As always, Zirin has a punchy writing style and he definitely takes sides. At the same time, there is, unsurprisingly, in every line, an undying love of sport. But Zirin always has an eye for the relationships between sports and society, dominance and resistance. This is true here as well.

“Our sports culture shapes societal attitudes, relationships, and power arrangements. It is where cultural meanings— our very notions of who we are and how we see each other, not only as Americans but also as individuals— play out. It frames the ways in which we understand and discuss issues of gender, race, and class. And, as ever, it is crucial for understanding how these norms and power structures have been negotiated, struggled with, and resisted.” (Locs 367-370)

The book is rich in stories in context that will keep even the least interested reader (like me) interested in the subject. Overall, in the US, Zirin sees the end of the “shut up and play” rule where athletes are not supposed to have opinions beyond their brand preferences. And there is often a price to pay if players do speak up and get political.

At the same time, Zirin reminds readers that players are labor, with unions, operating in environments of unprecedented corporate power and owners who engage in David Harvey’s accumulation by extraction, passing on the burden of the economic crisis and bad managements to the players. In that sense, sports is a perfect reflection of socioeconomic trends that affect the American society as a whole.

And so, the lockouts we have all heard of over the previous years are about very basic labor issues:

“Our side of the table, the average career for a football player is 3.6 years. It takes you three years and three games in order to get five years of health care coverage when you’re done playing. If you play any less than three years you don’t get any health care coverage when you retire. If you play three years and three games, you still only get five years . . . so you take a guy who graduates from college at 22, the average career is 3.6 years, let’s say he plays four years. Players are retiring at the ripe old age of 26. Five years of health care coverage and everything after that, every injury you have is a preexisting condition. Try to find insurance for that. So when they say to me, it’s a battle between billionaires and millionaires, that’s where I start.” (Locs 520-525).

Of course, in different ways, a lot of Americans face this exact same situation with the health care system. Athletes get it much younger and much more dramatically.

This corporate power is accompanied by what has long been Zirin’s pet peeve, and the subject of his previous book, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (reviewed here), massive public subsidies to very wealthy teams and their “wronged billionaire” owners. And as with the American society where wealth has been transferred upwards over the past thirty years, the same goes for the big leagues, like the NBA, where massive wealth gets transferred from the public and the players to the owners.

But why was soccer fanhood so central to the Arab Spring?

“In many countries with an authoritarian bent, the clubs are allowed to exist and even thrive, under the tacit understanding that it’s better for young, frustrated men to take out their anger on themselves and the police than on the government.” (Locs 732-733)

Thus were born the Egyptian Ultras who were so present on Tahrir Square. And so, as much as they were supposed to stay away from politics, the Ultras trained themselves to be revolutionaries as they went against the other fans. Similarly, athletes and fans in Bahrain also took to the streets, with less success though. Several star players were arrested and tortured there.

Even more globally, to have the privilege of organizing a major sports event, such as the Olympics or the World Cup of Soccer often means a shock doctrine for the less privileged:

“Increasingly, these rising economic powers are also vying for the honor and prestige of hosting international sporting events. In the twenty-first century, such events require more than merely stadiums and hotels. The host country must provide a massive security apparatus, the means to crush any opposition, and the ability to create the kind of “infrastructure” that modern games demand. That means not just stadiums, but sparkling new stadiums; not just security, but the latest in antiterrorist technology; not just new transportation to and from venues, but the removal of unsightly poverty along those paths. That means a willingness to spend billions of dollars in the name of creating a playground for international tourists and multinational sponsors. What this all requires is what the decaying Western powers, at this point, cannot provide: massive deficit spending and a state police infrastructure ready to displace, destroy, or disappear anyone who dares stand in their way.” (Locs 993-1000)

For anyone following the British press, there was a lot of coverage of these issues before the London Olympics. And one just has to look at current events to find items reflecting exactly that:

“Brazilian riot police armed with batons, teargas and pepper spray have forcibly evicted an indigenous community from a dilapidated museum complex next to the Maracanã football stadium.

The forced relocation, which led to scuffles, arrests and accusations of brutality, comes amid growing pressure on the hosts of the next World Cup to accelerate preparations that have fallen far behind schedule. Renovation of the stadium, which will host next year’s final, was supposed to have been completed at the end of last year, but there are doubts that it will be ready for a friendly between England and Brazil in June.

The museum has been the focus of a protracted legal battle between squatters, who claim the site should be used to promote indigenous culture, and the municipal authorities, who want to knock down a graffiti-covered eyesore and modernise the area before the world’s attention moves to Rio de Janeiro.

“We were negotiating, and then the government resorted to force,” said Urutau Guajajara, a bare-chested man wearing a feathered headdress who described himself as a professor of the Guajajara ethnic group. “The police were very violent.”

“It was shocking,” said Ingrid Paul, an Argentinian who has lived in the community for the past three weeks. “The police were obviously preparing for a fight. They came in with masks at 2:30am. We were all affected by the gas, even a three-year-old child.”

After their eviction, some of the indigenous people were taken to temporary housing provided by the government. Others sang songs, smoked pipes and handed out leaflets declaring: “513 years of struggle: resist the expulsion of the multi-ethnic indigenous group of the Maracanã.”

In the aftermath, police and TV helicopters buzzed overhead. Officers armed with automatic rifles cordoned off the area and several dozen police vehicles – including armoured personnel carriers – lined the streets.

The government says it is necessary to raze the building as part of the renovation of a rundown area that is supposed to be transformed into a sports and entertainment hub.”

It is all here: the pushing the poor to the side so they don’t stain the perfect landscape for the global media; the militarization of security, the use private military / security companies with shady accounting and overspending of public monies; the forced and inadequate relocations. It is the cleansing of urban centers for the benefit of the global elite and the few who will be able to afford the steep ticket prices for the main events (with massive corporate buys that leave a lot of empty seats as happened in London). And ultimately, the public will be stuck with the bill. In the case of the World Cup in South Africa, Zirin coined this phenomenon “Invictus in reverse” where it even got worse:

“Then there were the assassinations. In a story that made international news but gained next to no notice in the United States, two people (on a discovered list of twenty) were assassinated for “whistle-blowing” on suspected corruption in the construction of the $ 150 million Mbombela Stadium. The Sunday World newspaper attained the list, which included two journalists and numerous political leaders.” (Locs 1230-1233)

Nevertheless, in a country plagued by massive poverty and the heritage of apartheid, enormous amounts of money were spent on infrastructure just for one global event, like the grandiose Moses Mabhida Stadium.

And of course, no political opposition must be seen or heard at global sports events. No dissent must be allowed. The poor and disadvantaged must be out of sight. Only the “approved” vendors are allowed, so regular street vendors are pushed out of the way and reap no benefit from the in-pouring of global money. And the global media will be silent on the police brutality that will necessarily occur. Nothing must ruin the global spectacle.

Inevitably as well, Zirin devotes a full chapter to the shame of Penn State and its revered coach in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.

“This is what happens when a football program becomes the economic, social, and spiritual heartbeat of an entire region. Joe Paterno was the personification of everything that made Penn State matter in football, in academics, and in much of the state. When something becomes that valuable, a certain mind-set kicks in: Protect JoePa. Protect Nittany Lions football. Protect the brand above all. In a company town, your first responsibility is to protect the company.

But Penn State never was an “outlaw program.” It was what every school was supposed to aspire to become. Now every athletic director or school president has to reckon with the fact that they have been looking up to an institution that places such value on football that children can become collateral damage. Let JoePa’s last teachable moment be this: If your football coach is the highest-paid, most revered person on your campus, you have a problem. If your school wins multiple championships and a booster drops money to build a statue of the coach, tear it the hell down. And if you think children are being raped, the minimum just isn’t good enough, no matter whether or not you wear a crown.” (Kindle Locs 1695-1703)

And Zirin has a few choice words as well for the students who rioted in support of Paterno and his team, a jock culture that has mutated into malignancy, as he calls it. And in the wake of the Steubenville horror, these words certainly ring true. At the same time, Zirin is also critical of the way the NCAA interjected itself into what is a legal matter. Zirin also has a full chapter on the NCAA and its exploitation of student-athletes in the context of state retrenchment from academia:

“Given the grim budgetary realities that surround state universities today, the numbers boggle the mind. According to USA Today, salaries of new head football coaches at the 120 bowl-eligible schools increased by 35 percent in 2011. Average pay has now ballooned to $ 1.5 million annually, an increase from $ 1.1 million. Over the last six seasons, football coach salaries have risen by an astonishing 55 percent. This has happened as tuition hikes, furloughs, and layoffs have continued unabated. In an era of stagnating and falling wages, compensation for coaching a college football team traces a trend line that rises like a booster’s adrenaline during bowl season. The question is how— not just how this is possible given the stark economic realities of most institutions, but how schools can be this shameless.” (Locs 1864-1869)

Intercollegiate sport is unsustainable but it is somehow sacred and therefore protected from cuts. And despite claims to the contrary, Zirin shows that money from athletics does not trickle to the rest of academic institutions.

Zirin also covers materials he covered in his film Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports,

He does cover race, gender and LGBT issues in sport, with a specific focus on Caster Semenya and her shameful treatment by the sports authority, dedicated to determining her gender, even if it meant subjecting her to a series of degradation ceremonies. Zirin argues that there is something especially rotten when it comes to gender and track and field.

“Track and field has had a particular preoccupation with gender, especially when it intersects with race. Fifty years ago, Olympic official Norman Cox proposed that the International Olympic Committee create a separate category of competition for black women, “the unfairly advantaged ‘hermaphrodites.’ ” For years, women athletes had to parade naked in front of Olympic officials for inspection. This gave way to more “sophisticated gender testing” to determine if athletes have what officials still perceive as the ultimate advantage: being a man.

Let’s leave aside that being male is not the be-all, end-all of athletic success; wealth, coaching facilities, nutrition, and opportunity determine the development of a world-class athlete far more than a Y chromosome ever could. Essentially, the physical reality of intersex people calls into question fixed notions we are taught to accept about men and women in general, and athletes in sex-segregated sports like track and field in particular.” (Locs 2334-2342)

So, in the case of Caster Semenya,

“In the Caster Semenya case, there are important questions few in the sports media dared ask. Why should it matter if she is maxing out her every biological advantage? No one claims that basketball star Yao Ming had an unfair advantage because he is seven foot five. No one asked if swimmer Michael Phelps’s mammoth, flipper-like feet unfairly skewed the competition. If anything, he was praised for being, as one announcer said breathlessly, “built to swim!” Why isn’t Caster Semenya, with her slender hips and powerful muscles, “built to run”? If Semenya’s biology is not “normal,” it’s worth asking, what world-class athlete does have a normal body?” (Locs 2346-2351)

We can all suspect what the answers are to these questions. And they all point to our collective discomfort when it comes to intersex individuals and anyone, for that matter, who does not fit neatly in the socially-acceptable gender boxes. But Zirin sees a few hopeful signs of greater openness in the world of LGBT sports.

But racism has not disappeared either and Zirin is merciless towards NBA commissioner Stern:

“Racism reverberates with particular strength in the NBA because no other sport tries so aggressively to market African American players to an overwhelmingly white, middle-class “ticket-buying” audience. This dynamic causes a set of resentments and tensions that Stern seems unable to navigate. Instead of building bridges, he napalms them. Every scuffle, every fight, every elbow on the court is subject to the kind of hand-wringing that would be unheard of in fight-happy hockey. Every scandal is a commentary on the culture, attitudes, or even, as ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd opined, the “absence of fathers” in the African American community. In other words, race is discussed, but never explicitly— and never as a way of analyzing the assumptions of the analysts themselves. Instead, the discussion often merely reinforces racist attitudes about players, their backgrounds, and their states of mind.” (Locs 2766-2772)

So, as one reaches the end of Zirin’s book, which is mostly about hopeful trends, one does wonder whether these trends are real or just a set of nice anecdotes but far from social movements to make sports more publicly accountable, more labor-friendly, less racist, sexist and homophobic. Frankly, I don’t know. Sometimes, it seems as if Zirin is overplaying his hand but then, he’s the expert, not me.

 But then, it does not take much to remind us of the persistence of racism in the world of sports, whether from audience at stadiums in Europe or sports commentators:

 “The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, is, if you think about it, a pretty nasty song. It dreams, in one of its more memorable verses, that the “blood of the impure” will “irrigate our fields.” It’s a rousing anthem, to be sure, and I myself can frequently be heard humming it to myself in advance of a match being played by Les Bleus, or as I ride my bike or do the dishes. I’ve found that it’s sometimes hard to find a French person (at least if you hang out, as I do, with too many intellectuals), who can actually sing it without irony. And yet, over the past 26 years, the question of whether a particular subset of French men – those who play on the national football team – sing the Marseillaise under certain conditions has been a rather unhealthy obsession in France (we’ve blogged about it before, when Kinshasa-born flanker Yannick Nyanga sobbed uncontrollably during the anthem ahead of a rugby match vs Australia last year).

We are now being treated to what feels to me like Act 467 of this drama. Karim Benzema, as anyone who attentively watches French football matches knows, doesn’t sing the anthem before matches. In a recent interview, asked why, he answered in a pleasingly flippant way: “It’s not because I sing that I’m going to score three goals. If I don’t sing the Marseillaise, but then the game starts and I score three goals, I don’t think at the end of the game anyone is going to say that I didn’t sing the Marseillaise.” Pushed further on the question, he invoked none other than Zinedine Zidane who, like Benzema, was the child of Algerian immigrants to France – and who also happens to be the greatest French footballer of all time, and the one to whom the team owes its one little star on its jersey: “No one is going to force me to sing the Marseillaise. Zidane, for instance, didn’t necessarily sing it. And there are others. I don’t see that it’s a problem.”

Ah, Karim, but it is a problem, don’t you see? In fact, your decision about whether to vocalize or not, as you stand in line under the careful scrutiny of cameras, about to enter into a hyper-stressful and aggressive sporting match during which your every action will be dissected and discussed, is an unmistakable sign about whether or not the true France will survive or alternatively be submerged in a tide of unruly immigrants and their descendants.

Notwithstanding the fact that, as Michel Platini has noted, in his generation no footballers ever sang the Marseillaise, and that “white” footballers – even the Muslim Franck Ribéry, who at best mutters a bit during the anthem but is much more enthusiastic in his pre-game prayers to Allah – are rarely if ever asked this particular question, even so some will continue to insist that your choice not to sing is a window onto your disloyal soul. As the Front National explained: “This football mercenary, paid 1484 Euros per hour, shows an inconceivable and inacceptable disdain for the jersey that he is lucky to be able to wear. Karim Benzema does not “see the problem” with not singing the Marseillaise. Well, French people wouldn’t see any problem with having him no longer play for the French team.””

For the record, I’m French “de souche”, white. I know La Marseillaise is a stupid war song and I never bothered to learn it and I have never sung it in public events. But the whole “disdain for the French jersey” theme is not new and it came to the fore especially after the incident at the World Cup of Soccer in South Africa where the French team refused to train and practice and ultimately, left the tournament in shame (see my review of a French book on this very subject).

Anyway, read Zirin’s book.